April 20, 2006
The sands that blotted sweat and blood...
Abdul Rahman Bukhatir and Asif Iqbal had a vision – a vision to transform the sand dunes of Sharjah into the new Mecca of cricket, the epithet quality of that phrase notwithstanding. And so were the seeds of cricket sown in the torrid desert region, where the only other vegetation that grows in those sands are ones that come with thorns. Flagged off with Asia Cup in 1984, Sharjah started drawing attention of cricket enthusiasts, players and watchers alike, and the initial matches between the Asian cricketing neighbors, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka proved a good staple to the starved public, besides dates. India, fresh from their success at the Prudential Cup (and erasing the couple of odd memories in the revenge series against West Indies played at home, in both varieties of the game), started off well at Sharjah winning every possible cup, Asia Cup, Rothmans Cup, Champions trophy, fielded by Bhukatir, almost every time at the expense of Pakistan. The images of Surinder Khanna and Gulam Parkar staving off the pace attack of an otherwise depleted Pakistan bowling battery, sans Imran Khan and Sarfraz Nawaz, found a mind-numbing recurrence in the warm-up matches and final games in the initial couple of tournaments. Another triangular series with India, Pak and SL, another India and Pak finals, sidelining Sri Lanka without breaking any sweat, another India win trouncing Pakistan in the final - these remained as permanent a fixture at Sharjah as camels and sheiks in that desert region. Just when the interest started to dip in Sharjah, did the magical match happen between the warring neighbors, that made everybody sit up and give the graceful host one more chance. And it involved one of the pathetic batting displays ever put up by both the teams...
It was notsomuchas a pathetic batting display, but a great bowling show by both the teams and a magical come-around by India that started a series of nail-biters and nerve-wrackers, whenever India and Pakistan showed up at the coin toss at the Sharjah cricket grounds. Imran, fresh into the team after a career-threatening injury, scythed through the Indian team to reduce it to a paltry 125 at the end of the allotted overs, earning his career-best 6/14 in the process. What had transpired in the Indian dressing room during that lunch period was anybody's guess. Did they have a strategy for such situation? Were they prepared to face the crowd after such a disappointing batting display? Did they even eat? If the final match at Lords during the Prudential Cup an year ago taught the world anything, it is that no score was too low to defend and no match was ever over until the final over. With the likes of Mudassar Nazar, Mohsin Khan,Javed Miandad, Rameez Raja and Salim Malik in the wings (not to discount Imran with the bat), a score of 125 was just too ridiculous to defend and nobody would have been shocked, had the Indians just conceded the match without bowling a single ball. What happened in the second innings of that match was the stuff lores and legends were made of. A team that got through till around 50 without any wicket withered under a combined attack of stifling consistency and immaculate fielding to be reduced to a paltry 87. Talk about shock and awe! The image of the diminutive wicket keeper Ashraf Ali dancing down expecting a flighted delivery from L.Sivaramakrishnan and dancing all the back to the crease when given a shorter than good length, to finally chase the sharply turning ball into the hands of the hungry slips, summed up the match for India. The situation at Sharjah became so one-sided that Indians took the venue and Pakistan for granted until that match happened...
The match ended with THE shot that was heard around the world (or at least, the eastern half of it), and as the beaten cliche would have it, it never was the same again. The names Javed Miandad and Chetan Sharma would resonate in people's minds in different ways – a sheep slaughtered, a demon slain, the Pakistani victory Champaign bottle that would remain uncorked in years to come, and the white cloth (kafan) drawn over the dominance of India in Sharjah. Thanks to all those images, the name Sharjah became synonymous with excitement. Viewers poured into the stands braving the dry heat and the near inhuman temperatures, and patiently waited for another of "those" matches to happen, in the optimistic anticipation of becoming a part of the cricket history. Whenever India fell for a cheap score, nobody wrote the team off, reminding themselves of the numbers 125/87 constantly. Whenever India made a big score, nobody moved from the stands until the last ball was bowled, because, Mecca was indeed the place of miracles, even it involved wooden bats and leather balls. The year was 1985 that changed everything. It can be categorically stated that, that match turned the fortunes for both Pakistan and India. Though India came close to winning close matches on a couple of occasions, the unshakeable belief of the Pakistani team in their ability to snatch victory at any cost against any odds, saw to that India almost never won a match again (leave alone the entire tournament) in any series that involved Pakistan. The occasional Champions trophy when India were bowled out to 140 odd runs and Maninder Singh spun his magic to claim an almost hat-trick (3 wickets in 4 balls and too the likes of Shoaib Mohammed, Javed Miandad and Imran Khan) to see Pakistan teetering on the precipitous edge of defeat, only to be pulled back by a valiant effort from Mansoor Elahi towards victory, explained it all for India. So near, yet never close...
Sharjah had also witnessed its fair share of glamour. The glitterati of Hindi filmdom descending on the dunes for all matches and sundry, Bukhatir playing a graceful host to everybody - from a small time actors to the legends of Bollywood to garner as much and any publicity to the event as can be possible, the sensible camera men (and the wise producers) turning the spotlight on the actors and actresses at regular intervals, the wise cracking commentators (Henry Blofeld and his obsession with long ear-rings) joining in on the fun - cricket became secondary at Sharjah, vying for equal attention with the rest of the stars. The immediate cutting to Amrita Singh in the box, whenever something happened to Ravi Shastri on the field, the full-throat laughter scenes of Anju Mahendru, the bald pate of a grim-looking Feroz Khan, the occasional shots of Dawood Ibrahim cozying up with the flavor of the month starlets, the images of Javed Miandad climbing up the seats in the premimum boxes to reach up to people instead of talking the regular route (a privilege granted only to people capable of hitting a six of the last ball of the match to secure a win) - Sharjah had it all. It pleased the eye, the pleased the heart and it pleased the mind. All good times had to end, and it was no different for Bukhatir and Sharjah. India finally put an end to its misery in its own way - it refused to participate in any further matches since the late 90s. While BCCI blamed it on match fixing, the others viewed India as a sour puss, unable to take the mounting pressure at home, both on the players and selectors, losing to Pakistan every other day in every match.
Through all the changing times and changing teams, the sand dunes had buried in itself a horde of fond memories to the cricket fans the world over. And here is to a fitting start of another era in Abu Dabhi, when the old rivals shared the honors in the first-ever tournament and promised to revive and relive the old memories...just for old times sake...
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